Developing a baseline for strategic success: Nashville Metro Water Services’ EUM assessment

Authors: Catherine Carter

Developing Priorities and Strategies during a strategic planning process is relatively easy – everyone has ideas about what needs to be improved, and how the organization can be made stronger and better. Holding groups and individuals accountable for making progress toward achieving those Priorities and Strategies over a three- to five-year time horizon, however, is considerably more difficult.

Several reasons exist for this difficulty, some of which include an absence of the right data at the right point in the strategic planning process, unrealistic targets for the given timeframe, and a lack of meaningful outcome metrics. Conducting an upfront assessment of an organization, prior to the development of a strategic plan, can help to combat these challenges and provide a springboard to make the implementation of the plan a success.

What is EUM?

Effective Utility Management (EUM) is an initiative conceived by the U.S. EPA and six national water and wastewater industry associations. One of the tenets of EUM is the Ten Attributes of Effectively Managed Utilities, which provide a clear set of reference points, and are intended to help utilities maintain a balanced focus on all important operational areas, rather than quickly moving from one problem to the next. The Ten Attributes are:

  1. Product Quality
  2. Customer Satisfaction
  3. Employee and Leadership Development
  4. Operational Optimization
  5. Financial Viability
  6. Infrastructure Stability
  7. Operational Resiliency
  8. Community Sustainability
  9. Water Resource Adequacy
  10. Stakeholder Understanding and Support

How Nashville MWS used EUM to set the stage for strategic planning

Nashville Metro Water Services (MWS) provides water, wastewater, and stormwater services to more than 650,000 people in the Nashville area. Prior to initiating its strategic planning process, Raftelis conducted an organizational assessment for MWS based on EUM, which provided a strong strategic and informational baseline for its future activity.

MWS’ EUM assessment drew on several resources to help its leadership understand its current levels of performance, including:

  • Employee teams of subject matter experts for each EUM Attribute, which met several times to assess the organization’s performance, as well as the presence and degree of implementation of key operational practices
  • The Water Research Foundation Gap Analysis Tool (Gap Analysis Tool)
  • AWWA Benchmarking Survey Data
  • NACWA Survey Data
  • JD Power’s Water Utility Customer Satisfaction Study Data

For each Attribute, teams of four to six employees used the Gap Analysis Tool to identify MWS’ current and preferred performance levels, and where industry best practices were already in place within the organization. The teams then reviewed industry benchmarking data to designate appropriate metrics for each Attribute. Once appropriate metrics were assigned, the employee teams determined MWS’ current performance on each metric, to use as a baseline for future measurement.  At this point, the employee teams did not consider the actions necessary for future progress, but rather focused on which metrics were most helpful in measuring organizational outcomes related to each Attribute.

Having completed the EUM assessment, MWS’ expanded leadership team, which included several representatives from each of the Attribute Teams, convened to develop a five-year strategic plan.  This strategic plan was heavily informed by broad and deep internal and external stakeholder engagement, which helped MWS to develop its seven overarching strategic priorities, and the results of the EUM Assessment, which facilitated setting achievable targets. Because the MWS leadership team had already gained an understanding of the organization’s current performance and areas for improvement, and baselines had already been established for more than 35 key metrics, the process of assigning some of the EUM Assessment metrics to the Strategic Priorities was straightforward.  Additional metrics were then added to set targets and capture specific performance improvements within each of the Strategic Priorities, rounding out the information gained through the EUM Assessment.

For example, the employees on the Product Quality Attribute Team during the EUM Assessment identified a gap between MWS’s current and target performance regarding sanitary sewer overflow (SSO) mitigation. After Infrastructure Stability became one of MWS’ five-year Priorities, the gap identified by the EUM Assessment was discussed, leading MWS to commit to achieving the following Goal: “Reduce SSOs per 100 miles of sewer collection piping to a maximum of 1.3 overflows/100 miles of pipe on an ongoing basis.” Currently, MWS’ Infrastructure Stability Priority Team is working to establish a formal asset management program, which will assist the utility in meeting its Goal of reducing SSOs over the next several years.

Completing the EUM assessment in advance of its strategic plan allowed MWS to access up-to-date organizational performance data immediately after Priorities were developed, allowing the utility to set appropriate five-year targets, and develop meaningful outcome metrics to track implementation progress.